First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

The Importance of Being a Grapefruit

First United Methodist Church
May 5th, 2024
Rev. Lauren Hall

The Importance of Being a Grapefruit

When I was a kid, I learned a lot about life from books that my parents intentionally left lying around hoping that we would read them. One of those books had a lot of encouraging quotes in it and the quote that has stuck with me for most of my life was from Oscar Wilde who said, “A grapefruit is a lemon that had a chance and took advantage of it.”

From the very beginning, I knew that Wilde was talking about people and not fruit, and as I applied this principle to numerous situations in my life, I have been able to accomplish quite a bit through hard work and grit. But its meaning changed dramatically when I started to think about it through the lens of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

In today’s world, we frequently come across stories about people who began their lives in miserable circumstances and then through some sort of intervention they turned their lives around and did something extraordinary. One such person is John Newton, the writer of the song, “Amazing Grace.” Another is Abraham Lincoln. But what about the people who don’t?

Let’s imagine that the lemon is a human being. At birth, the lemon is born with the same potential as other human beings, but depending on how it is nurtured, its natural gifts may or may not be recognized. As our “lemon” struggles through childhood, its personality is shaped by its experiences, and inside it becomes sour and tart. It notices how the world reacts to it, and as it grows older it becomes bitter and dry. At this point, not much can be done with the lemon, and we either keep it around to get whatever good is left in it, or we throw it out.

There are many people in our society who have experienced life in this way. A few years ago, I learned about a program called “Puppies Behind Bars.” Over the years it has been transformed into a ministry, even if its originators didn’t intend for it to be one. “Puppies Behind Bars” is a program in which prison inmates train puppies to become service dogs. When these dogs complete their training with the inmates, they will become guide dogs for the blind or companion dogs for soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injury. Some of the dogs may work in law enforcement as canine cops. The prisoners raise the puppies for almost two years; the puppies live with them in their cells, they feed them, they attend training classes with them, and they hang out with them in the prison yard. It’s not an easy program to get into, and it requires a lot of responsibility from the inmate.

The prisoners who participate in this program have committed serious crimes, including murder. Many of them would fit the description I shared a minute ago; society would label them as incorrigible. They can’t remember what it is like to be loved, they have been surrounded by violence for as long as they can remember, and they have been used for crime-related activities since their early childhood. Their experience in the world has caused them to bury their emotions so deep that they seem cold and uncaring. One participant described himself like this, “When you come in here, if you show any emotion it’s a sign of weakness. So if you want to survive, you have to act like you don’t care. And then after awhile you stop caring.” Men and women in our prison system often become dried up sour lemons.

The Puppies Behind Bars program trusts each inmate with a life to take care of. They have to feed the dogs, nurture, train, and spend 24 hours a day with them. In return, the inmates are loved by their dogs with the unconditional love that dogs instinctively seem to know how to provide. During this process, inmates are transformed. They not only learn responsibility, but they learn how to love and receive love, and they know that someone else will benefit from the time and energy they invest into the dogs. As one inmate put it, “This is our way of giving back to the world which we took so much from.” Another said, “Now I know what I need to do for my family when I get out."

Christ reminds us that God is glorified when we bear fruit, and one of those fruits is love. I chose to share this story today because through this program these inmates are transformed from hardened criminals who care only about what they want and need into individuals who have a sense of self-worth that comes from loving, being loved and doing something for someone else.

Theologically, our gospel is pretty full today and there are a lot of different ways I could go with it. But there are two verses that really intrigue me and those are verses 11 and 12. Verse 11 says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” What exactly is joy? And why is Jesus talking about joy when he is about to be arrested and executed?

Joy can be somewhat elusive. If you look for it in pictures, you will usually see movement – dancing, running, jumping. It is like when joy hits us, we can’t be still. Often there is more than one figure in the picture. This implies that you can’t keep joy in, and you can’t keep it to yourself. Mark Twain supposedly said that “grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.” Joy is meant to be shared; therefore, it is difficult to experience joy in the absence of others.

Joy requires companionship. And that companionship evolves through love. Verse 12 says, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is saying that our joy is not complete until it is joined to his joy, the holy, divine joy that knows that “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Our joy is complete – or mature, or perfect, it is all the same word in Greek – only when woven into his joy.

And this is what binds the last few weeks together. Abiding. Joy. Love. Being branches. Being sheep. Eternal joy is a gift that comes from Jesus. From abiding in him. And he tells us that to abide in him is to obey his commandment to love one another as he loved us. To love as he loves. It is to look outward. Joy is found not in the contentment of satisfying our own desires, but in service to those we love as he loves. It is in acts of service; it is in healing and helping; it is in holding shaky hands and calming troubled hearts; it is in honoring those we love.

When people discover love, whether it is through generosity or service to others, they begin to experience firsthand the message that Christ labored so hard to get across: That God’s love is available to everyone.

Our role as Christians is to extend that love unconditionally so that people have the opportunity to experience Christ’s love for themselves. It doesn’t matter who they are, or how much money they make, or where they come from, or if they have committed a crime. Christ’s redemptive love restores everyone.

We can live out our lives being lemons, sour and bitter about the things that have happened in our lives. We can spend time placing ourselves and others in categories of unworthiness and refuse the grace of God because no matter how hard we try, we will never measure up. Our sins and our shortcomings will keep us separated from God forever.

Or we can let go of the worldly things that define who we are and allow ourselves to be defined by the love of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, Christ completes us and makes us worthy. When we receive the Holy Spirit and it begins to work in us and through us, part of us changes. We begin to bear fruit, and not only does our life change, but we are now able to help others do the same. The joy of living and loving with Jesus Christ daily keeps us level-headed, no matter what our circumstances. Our chance was given to us through Jesus Christ. All we need to do is take advantage of it. Let us pray:

Pastoral Prayer

Jesus, you taught us to abide in your generous love, for it completes our lives and gives us joy; you ask us to love others as you have loved us, for it brings your creation to fruition. We sometimes struggle to love the people in our lives as you have loved us. Open our hearts today, Lord, and imprint your message of love upon them, that all we say and do is done in your name and for the sake of your people and your world. AMEN.